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The day didn’t quite last as long as expected along Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s sprawling Sterling Heights Assembly Plant on Friday afternoon. As parts ran out, the suburban Detroit line quickly ground to a halt, marking the end of production of the Chrysler 200 sedan — and the start of a long layoff for 1,700 hourly employees.
Back in 2011, as Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy and entered into a partnership with Italy’s Fiat SpA, the midsize four-door was expected to be a key to the company’s turnaround. And it got a big send-up thanks to an unusual, 90-second Super Bowl commercial featuring rapper Eminem. But after an initial burst of demand, sales have tanked, so far this year off 65 percent from 2015’s pace.
This past September, FCA also pulled the plug on its only other U.S.-made small passenger car, the Dodge Dart. The decision to kill off both models reflects the massive shift in the U.S. market from conventional passenger cars to SUVs, crossovers, vans and pickups. Collectively, light trucks now account for over 60 percent of the American new vehicle market.
FCA has no plans to replace those two small car lines – or others it pulled before. It is only barely maintaining production of three larger models in Canada. The good news for FCA’s hourly employees is that they’ll eventually be called back to work.
The maker is planning to change over both the Belvidere, Illinois, Dart plant and the Chrysler 200 factory in Sterling Heights to produce new trucks. In all, the automaker expects to invest $1.48 billion in the suburban Detroit operation, adding a new paint shop, a new test track, and an all-new version of its full-size Ram 1500 pickup.
When the plant comes back online, FCA will not only bring back those 1,700 hourly workers — and another 1,846 supervisors and salaried staff — but begin to phase in another 700 jobs on the line as truck production ramps up. Since the automaker is expected to eventually bring back an additional shift, state records indicate employment could ultimately approach 5,000.
Of course, FCA isn’t the only automaker changing course to respond to market shifts. Domestic rivals Ford and General Motors are rejigging their production schedules and Ford is moving assembly of slower selling small passenger car models to Mexico to open up factory space for new pickups and utes.
Even industry giant Toyota has also been cutting back production of some passenger lines and boosting light truck output. The market shift “is going to continue to accelerate in the future,” Bob Carter, head of U.S. Automotive Operations for Toyota, said Wednesday during an appearance in Detroit.